By Andrew Fukuda
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Andrew Fukuda
All rights reserved.
We thought we were finally free of them but we were wrong. That very night, they come at us.
We hear the pack of hunters mere minutes before they reach the riverbank: gritty cries flung into the night sky, coarse and sharp like glass shards crushed underfoot. The horse, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling back, rises from the ground with a start. Muscles fused together, it gallops away with ears pulled back, the whites of its eyes shining like demented moons, into the vast darkness of the land.
We grab our bags, the six of us, flee to the docked boat on legs that judder under us. The anchoring ropes are taut, and our shaking fingers are unable to loosen them. Ben trying to quiet his own whimpers, Epap already standing on the boat frozen with fear, head tilted toward the sound of their approach. Tufts of his hair stick up like surrendering arms, mussed from a slumber into which he was never supposed to slip.
Sissy hacks away at the ropes. Sparks fly off the blade as her strokes become swifter, more urgent with every passing second. She stops suddenly, blade held aloft. She's staring into the distance. She sees them: ten silver dots, racing toward us down a distant meadow before disappearing behind the rise of a closer hill. The hairs on my neck freeze into icicles, snap and break in the wind.
They reappear, ten mercury beads cresting the hill with unflinching purpose. Silver dots, mercury beads, such quaint terms, my futile attempt to render the horrific into the innocuous, into jewelry accessories. But these are people. These are hunters. Coming to sink fangs into my flesh, to ravage me, to devour and savage my organs.
I grab the younger boys, push them aboard the boat. Sissy is hacking at the last rope, trying to ignore the wails screeching toward us, slippery and wet with saliva. I grab a pole, ready to start pushing off as soon as Sissy's cut the rope. With only seconds to spare, she saws through the rope, and I push the boat into the river's current. Sissy leaps on. The river wraps around us, draws us away from the bank.
The hunters gather on the riverbank, ten-strong, grotesque spillages of melted flesh and matted hair. I don't recognize a single one of them — no sign of Crimson Lips, Abs, Gaunt Man, the Director — but the desire in their eyes is all too familiar. It is the impulse more powerful than lust, an all-consuming desire to devour and consume heper flesh and blood. Three hunters leap headlong into the swift river in a futile effort to reach us. Their heads bob once, twice, then sink harmlessly away.
For hours the remaining hunters follow us along the banks. We try not to look at them, affixing our eyes on the river and the wooden planks of the deck. But there's no escaping their screams: full of unrequited lust, a keening despair. The four Dome boys — Ben, David, Jacob, and Epap — huddle in the cabin for most of the night. Sissy and I stay at the stern, guiding the boat with the long poles, keeping well away from the bank. As dawn approaches, the cloudy sky grows lighter in slow degrees. The remaining hunters, instead of becoming more languid with the approach of sunrise and the inevitability of death, only scream louder, their rage intensifying.
The sun rises slowly and glows dully from behind black clouds. A filtered, diffused burn. So the hunters die gradually, in degrees, horrendously. It takes almost an hour before the last bubbled scream gurgles away and there is nothing left of them to see or hear or smell.
Sissy speaks for the first time in hours. "I thought we'd journeyed far enough. Thought we'd seen the last of them." It is only morning, and her voice is already spent.
"It's been sunny," I say. "Until the storm yesterday." The rain and clouds had turned the day as dark as night and allowed the hunters to set off hours before dusk and reach us.
Sissy's jaw juts out. "Better not rain today, then," she says and walks into the cabin to check on the boys.
The river surges forward with propulsive insistence. I stare down its length until it fades into the distant darkness. I don't know what lies ahead, and the uncertainty numbs me with fear. A raindrop lands on my forehead, then another, and another, until rainwater lines down my neck and along my goose-pimpled arms like protruding veins. I gaze up. Dark, turgid clouds shift, then rip open. Rain buckets down in dark, slanted bands. The skies are coated as black as a murder of crows at midnight.
The hunt has only begun. The hunt will never end.
We sit in the cabin huddled together, trying to stay out of the rain. Our sodden clothes cling to our thin frames and concaved stomachs like mottled leathery skin. Every so often, someone will — driven by the illogic of hunger — open the food bag and find it (again) empty. All the berries and charred prairie dog meat long devoured.
With the heavy rain, the river current has picked up. We work shorter shifts steering the boat, our strength depleting quickly now. In the early afternoon, Sissy and I work together. Two hours later, we're wiped out. We collapse in the cabin while Epap and Jacob take over.
I am exhausted but unable to sleep. A wind gusts across the river, rippling the surface already dappled by pelting rain. I rub my face, trying to chafe warmth into my cheeks. On the other side of the cabin, eyes closed, Sissy is curled on her side, her head resting atop her clasped hands. Her face, relaxed in sleep, is soft, the outlines stenciled in.
"You've been staring at me for the past few minutes," she whispers, eyes still closed. I startle. Her lips curl upward in a faint smile. "Next time just wake me. You could sear through steel walls with that stare of yours."
I scratch my wrists.
Her eyes peel open; she sits up. Thick brown hair flops across her face, as tousled as the blanket she now lays gently over Ben snoring next to her. She yawns, extends her arms high above her head, her back arching. She walks over, stepping around a stockpile of sticks we'd brought aboard, and plops down next to me.
"The current's strong," I say. "Maybe too strong. I'm worried."
"No, it's a good thing. Means more separation between us and them."
Only a few days have passed since we escaped from the Heper Institute. We were chased by a mob ravenous for our blood and flesh. By the hundreds they poured out of the Institute, banquet guests driven by bloodlust. Against such a horde, the six of us had virtually no chance of survival. Our only hope lay frailly and solely in the Scientist's journal, a cryptic notebook that suggested an escape by boat down this river. The river, by luck, we found; the boat, by greater miracle, we also found. But the reason why we've been led down this river by the Scientist: that, we have not found.
"It also means less distance between us and him," she says as if reading my thoughts. She looks at me with steady eyes that are soft and knowing. I turn my eyes away.
Yesterday, when I'd come upon Epap's portrait of my father, it was the first time I'd seen my father's face in years: the deep-set eyes, the strong chiseled jawline, the thin lips, the stony expression that, even in a drawing, hinted at a deeper grace and sadness.
Now I think of the secrets those eye must have held, the agenda never uttered by those lips. On that very last day, my father had run into our home, sweating profusely, deathly pale. I saw the twin punctures in his neck. He had gone to such lengths to fake his turning. When he ran outdoors moments before sunrise, I thought he was running to his death to save me.
When he was only running to his freedom and killing me.
I pick up two thin branches from the stockpile and start filing them against one another as if sharpening knives. "You think he left this boat for you, don't you?" I say. "That he planned this whole elaborate escape for you. You want my two cents? The boat wasn't meant for you. It was meant for him, and for him alone. It was his escape vehicle. Only he wasn't bright enough to find it. Or maybe he built it himself but was hunted down before he could escape."
She stares at the sticks, then at me. "You're wrong. The Scientist promised us — almost every day — that he would one day lead us out of the dome. He spoke of a wonderful place where there was no danger or fear, where there was safety and warmth and countless numbers of other humans. The Land of Milk and Honey, Fruit and Sunshine. That's what he called it. Sometimes he described it as the Promised Land. And whenever he spoke of escape, he spoke of it as our escape."
"That was a big promise."
She presses her lips together. "It was. But it was what we needed. You have to understand — we were born in the dome, all of us. And we honestly thought we'd end up dying in it after a long, harsh life of captivity. It was a miserable existence. The Scientist — well, he showed up out of nowhere. And with this one promise, he changed our outlook, our lives. He gave us hope. The boys — especially Jacob — were transformed. Hope does that to you." She smiles. "We don't even know what milk and honey look or taste like."
"You put a lot of faith in one man's promise."
She looks at me. "You don't know him the way we do."
I almost flinch at her words that cut deep. But I'm able to control myself. A life of training will make you an expert at hiding emotion.
"Don't you want to find him?" she asks. "Aren't you the slightest bit curious where he might have gone?"
The sticks in my hands stop moving. Truth is, I've thought of little else.
Moonlight reflected by the river stipples across her face. "Tell me, Gene," she whispers, looking into my eyes.
I pause, her words — You don't know him the way we do — still ringing in my ears. The things I could tell her. That the man they know as the Scientist is the same man I have called Father; that I have lived with him, played with him, conversed with him, explored the metropolis with him, been told stories by him. I know that when he slept, his hardened face fell away to expose the face of a little boy, and that he snored only softly, his huge barrel chest rising and falling, rising and falling, his hands lying lax at his sides. That my years with him were more than theirs, and deeper. That I have been loved by him with a father's love, and that bond is greater than any other.
Instead, I rub the sticks harder against one another.
"You have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Gene," she says quietly.
I cross my legs under me, not speaking.
"Secrets," she whispers, "they will eat you up inside." She gets up and joins the others.
* * *
Later in the day, the rain stops. Sunshine breaks through a partial break in the clouds and the boys shout with jubilation. Jacob declares all is now perfect: they now have sunshine and speed. "Take that, you hunters!" he brazenly yells. The other hepers, laughing, egg him on. "Take that! Eat my dust!" Their laughter soars into the bluing skies.
But I do not share in their joy. Because every gained inch away from the hunters is another inch widening the chasm between Ashley June and me.
She has come to me in these last few days, unannounced through the most random of objects: the shape of the clouds, the silhouette of the ever-nearing eastern mountains. Every second that passes, every ripple of water left in our wake, and I feel the noose around her neck pulled tighter. Guilt pricks me. She is alone in the Heper Institute after sacrificing herself for me. Holding out for me, for a rescue I was unable to execute. By now she must know I am not returning. That I have failed her.
The boys are shouting, giddiness wrapped around their words, shiny and glossy. They are yelling about the Scientist, about the Promised Land.
The sound of footsteps running on the floorboards. It's Ben.
"Come join us on the deck, Gene!" he says, a bright smile on his face. "It's so much warmer in the sunshine than in the cabin."
I tell him I need to stay out of the sun.
"C'mon, c'mon," he says, pulling on my arms.
But I snap them back. "I can't. I'm not used to the sun. My skin is burning up as it is. I'm not darkened like you hep —" And I'm only just able to stop myself.
His face falls. Then he slips away, into the bright glare of sunlight, leaving me alone in the cold shade of the damp cabin.
Over the next hour, sun columns pierce through the clouds. The land opens itself up, its soaked colors bleeding into the terrain. The verdant green of the meadows, the deep blue hue of the river. All afternoon, I hear their voices slipping through cracks in the cabin walls. Even in the close proximity of the boat, they feel a thousand miles from me.
Sun pours down, its hazy texture like grains of salt falling into the open wounds of my conscience.
* * *
Late afternoon. Like dogs bathing in the sunshine, they're sprawled around the deck, soaking in the rays, napping. Their energies depleted, stomachs caved in and growling even as they sleep. It's my shift again at the stern. I drink in the sound of water lapping under the wooden boards, a rhythmic, hollow sound that is strangely comforting. The undulating bob of the boat prods me into sleepiness.
Epap is awake. He's hunched over, scribbling something, completely immersed in a drawing. Curiosity gets the better of me and I amble over, unnoticed.
He's sketching an image of Sissy. In the drawing, she's standing on a rock at the edge of a waterfall, one arm raised and staring ahead, her arm as slim as the horizon is long. The waterfall sparkles as if bejeweled by thousands of rubies and diamonds. She's wearing a sleeveless silk gown, her chest bustier and waist narrower than in reality. In the drawing, someone is standing behind her. It takes a moment before I realize who it's supposed to be. Epap, in a muscle T-shirt, his arms rippling cords of bunched muscles, his washboard abs reflecting moonlight. One hand is placed on Sissy's waist, the other placed farther down, lighting on her right thigh with an overwrought tenderness. Sissy is reaching back and grabbing the back of his head with a passionate fist, her fingers intertwined in the strands of his wavy hair.
"Wow, that's quite a feat of imagination," I say.
"Wha — !" he exclaims, slamming the sketchbook shut. "You little snoop!"
"What's going on?" Sissy murmurs, her eyes blinking with sleep.
"Take it easy," I say. "When you're done with your, um, drawings, mind giving me help with the steering? The current's gotten strong."
I head to the bow, angling the rudder pole until the boat slowly rights itself. From inside the cabin, Epap is barking about something. After a few minutes, it's David, not Epap, who comes out to lend a hand.
Whoa, he mouths, seeing the river. "We're going really fast." He grabs the other pole.
Epap is speaking to Sissy at the stern, his arms spread wide for balance. She shakes her head in response, pointing at the sun-columned but still overcast skies. Epap edges closer to her, his hands waving excitedly. They continue speaking, intensely, but I can't hear a word over the roar of the river. I walk over.
"— river," he's saying to her.
"What are you talking about?" I say as I approach them.
Epap shoots me a disagreeable look. "It's nothing."
I face Sissy. "What about the river?"
"The river is wet!" Epap sneers. "Now start minding your own business!"
"You're thinking of docking, aren't you?" I say to Sissy. "To hunt for food."
Sissy doesn't answer, only stares at the river, her jaw clenched.
"Let me tell you," I say, "that's a wrong move. That's a mistake."
"Nobody asked for your opinion," Epap says, positioning himself between me and Sissy.
"Getting off this boat is a big mistake, Sissy," I say, stepping around Epap. His back bristles with annoyance. "Didn't we learn anything from last night? There's —"
"What part of 'mind your own business' do you not understand?" Epap snarls. "In fact, just go get the rope lines ready. We'll need to anchor this boat down once we land."
"Are you out of your mind? They want to eat us —"
Epap's head flies around, raw disdain swimming in his eyes. "Oh, really, figured that one out yourself, did you?"
"Listen! They might still be out there —"
"Not anymore, they aren't," Epap says. "Don't you know anything about them? I'm surprised how little you know considering you've lived in their midst your whole life. Hello, the sun burns them up. And hello, the sun is shining down now." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Prey by Andrew Fukuda. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Fukuda. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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